LIANE HANSEN, host:
If you're a teacher in Michigan, odds are you earned your teaching certificate at a traditional college of education. The state requires nearly all elementary and secondary schoolteachers to get traditional training. But the promise of federal funds is pushing Michigan legislators to loosen those rules and allow teachers with alternative certification. NPR's Larry Abramson explains.
LARRY ABRAMSON: The drumbeat of bad news about Michigan would be enough to discourage a saint, but there are still a lot of optimists left here. Michael Tenbusch, for example, is still bullish about the town he grew up in. But as he walks the halls of Cody High School in Detroit, Tenbusch wonders how he can get more cockeyed optimists to join him.
Mr. MICHAEL TENBUSCH (Former Teacher): We need to get more idealists into our classrooms.
ABRAMSON: Tenbusch worked for the local United Way and he's helped lead a turnaround effort here at Cody. Now the halls are quiet and neat and the hand-picked staff is all fired up about the new school. But even this radical reform effort had to rely on teachers already in the school system. Tenbusch says to deal with Detroit's emergency, he needs a bigger pool of talent to draw on.
Mr. TENBUSCH: We know that there simply are not enough teachers in the district in order to fill every classroom with the best teacher possible.
ABRAMSON: Tenbusch himself was a nontraditional teacher once. He says he got into the business because he wanted to make a difference, not because he'd gone to a teacher's college. So, he supports a move to open up alternative certification in Michigan.
So does Principal Jonathan Matthews, who runs one of the academies housed here. He says that as his school grows, he wants to attract the unemployed autoworkers and others who don't have the time or inclination to study at a teachers college.
Mr. JONATHAN MATTHEWS (Principal): As we grow, we're going to need to be able to expand our net and pull in professionals from all kinds of fields. As we start looking at going to some specialty courses, we will need engineers, we will need former attorneys, former businesspersons to teach some of these special classes.
ABRAMSON: Compared to other states, Michigan makes it very difficult to follow that alternative route. Colleges and unions here say there's a good reason for that.
Mr. DOUG PRATT (Michigan Education Association): All this is predicated on a teacher shortage that doesn't exist in Michigan.
ABRAMSON: Doug Pratt of the Michigan Education Associations point out that Michigan is home to some of the biggest and best teacher colleges in the country. He says the state is an exporter of teachers. It has no need to attract new talent.
Mr. PRATT: Why aren't we watering down standards when we don't have to? That's the point.
ABRAMSON: And those who teach future teachers say alternative certification threatens the reputation of one industry that is still thriving in Michigan: teacher education.
This is the student center at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. Right now, EMU has nearly 8,000 education students preparing to enter the classroom, 8,000. EMU student Jeni Hellum from Lansing just transferred here from a community college. Even though her path to teaching will be long, she says the college route is worth the trouble.
Ms. JENI HELLUM (Student, Eastern Michigan University): A Michigan teaching license is bar none one of the best licenses you can get in the United States. And I think in the long run, it's going to be better for us as teachers. It makes us more marketable.
ABRAMSON: Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a big booster of alternative training for teachers, admits that teachers colleges must be the focus of any education reform efforts.
Bill Price, professor of educational leadership at Eastern Michigan University, says you just have to look at the scale of the task.
Professor BILL PRICE (Educational Leadership, Eastern Michigan University): We're talking about a huge, huge need across the country. We have 54 million kids in schools across the United States, so it's a huge task to prepare that number of people and have all of them be outstanding.
ABRAMSON: This is an old debate, but something new has entered the equation: the prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal Race to the Top fund. To get that money, states must prove they are reform minded. Among other things, that means opening up avenues to alternative teaching certificates.
Aides to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm say she has her eyes on that money.
Mr. CHUCK WILBUR (Education Adviser, Governor Jennifer Granholm): Oh, we're determined Michigan's going to be one of the states that wins Race to the Top.
ABRAMSON: Chuck Wilbur is the key education adviser to Granholm.
Mr. WILBUR: We need the best possible people to become teachers. And if we can capture the best and the brightest and give them an alternate but quality pathway to become teachers, we need to do that for our kids.
ABRAMSON: The data is mixed on whether alternative programs produce better teachers than traditional college-based routes. Better research is under way, but could take years. So, it may be some time before this debate is based on information rather than on which route can attract federal aid.
Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.
HANSEN: And you can read more stories from our series about teachers and education reform at NPR.org.